Steel is a Catalyst of Change

Recently, the Indian construction market has witnessed the introduction of new and innovative structural steel and components that have changed the face of construction. As far as promoting and popularising the concept of fast paced construction in India goes, this new age material has managed to do the trick, proclaims
SUNIL GODBOLE, Senior DGM – Structural Engineering, L&T Realty.
Excerpts from the interview…

Having more than two-decades of experience behind you, what has been your observation with regards to the evolution of structural engineering segment?
The practice of Structural Engineering, like Science, is one that always stands on the shoulders of its forbearers. For last 25 years after working in countries like United States, Canada, Ireland, South Africa, UAE, India, Malaysia & Taiwan, I have witnessed an extraordinary evolution in the way structural engineering is practised, thought about and discussed. The design of landmark structures, once within the reach and capability of just a few 20th century design practices, now appears to be within the grasp of many. The boundary and border of architecture and structural engineering have traditionally been defined by a linear and hierarchical correspondence between the two disciplines. Professionalisation of both disciplines has created a pre-articulated routinisation of the practices and distinct processes where the architect develops insights in design, while the structural engineers is granted exclusively to react only once the design is developed.

Today, both are required to develop new skills and competences if they are to survive. In response to cultural and technological developments in the last 25 years, this relationship has evolved significantly, changing economic orders (where rising wealth has increased the importance of aesthetics) and more recently, presenting new opportunities to question ‘planned obsolescence’ of buildings through the reshaping of design discipline.

Today’s fertile atmosphere provides a novel condition for the specific relationship between architects and structural engineers, as both disciplines try breathlessly, to keep up with the pace of change. During the early 1990s, newly awakened powers of observation and increased skill in representation encouraged both disciplines to look into each other’s work again in search of perennial reinvention.

At the height of this period, the boundary between uniquely human creativity and machines capacity for pattern recognition and complex communication marked a new confidence, offering free movement between the two disciplines, and between design fabrication and construction. As both platforms are protagonists, leading structural engineering design offices, design schools and educators play a big part in this dance of the disciplines. What was noticeable from 2000 is that architects, in response to the popular imaginations of their consumers, were increasingly expected to exemplify with each project a newness, cheapness, particularity or uniqueness to produce one off creations (often formerly unimaginable forms) that avoided universality.

Meanwhile other abundant productions of architecture such as housing in emerging markets continued due to rapid urbanisation with a very little design and often without architects. At the height of this trend, in his controversial thesis of 2002. “Stephen Wolfram” even stretched the traditional approach of computation, through mathematics and engineering, to empirically investigate computation for its own sake. Though seen by many as an abrasive approach, it did give valuable insights and observations; whenever one sees behaviour that is not obviously simple in essentially any system it can be thought of as corresponding to a computation of equivalent sophistication.

The opportunities for structural engineers and technologists to support the endeavours of architects expanded in response. Initially, to a greater or lesser degree, even structural engineers were guilty of being stuck in a tectonics discourse, often using the same technologies to produce inanimate aesthetics driven by the latest software, prestige and abundance of resources, sometimes fuelled (in part) by undiscerning constructions in developing economies.

Simultaneously this expanded opportunity allowed some engineers to grow their own disciplines freely, encouraged by the extraordinary freedom to ransack the software chest in search of the thinnest glass, shallowest curve, longest span, and so on. While such expansion must be tolerated in many cases, it resulted in architects and structural engineers working in an atmosphere of unclear thought and sensory profusion, encouraging the self-sabotage, gimmickry and posturing of so-called ‘archineers’ and ‘engitects’. At the start of any new-found freedom is ‘big bang’ effect, setting free a certain amount of pent-up demand.

The Beijing Olympic stadium is an example of this: looking back at this new structural wonder, one has to question its provocative deception in the use of steelwork a 60mm x 2mm strip that could wrap around the globe three times. In hindsight, we believe this approach failed to engage with the larger, more fundamental changes on offer to us as designers.

What is your take on the current scenario of steel construction segment in our country?
Today, with the improved availability of steel and, more importantly, the availability of structural steel that possesses better quality and features, the scenario is fast developing. New technologies in the design, fabrication and erection of steel structures are making them more popular than ever before, even though they still remain costlier in comparison to RCC. In fact, steel structures are now seen to be completing a full circle by becoming a material of choice, something that is a result of their being identified for their speed of erection, higher load-bearing capacity and convenience.

Steel structures are steadily getting their due recognition because of their sheer advantage in terms of innovation. Each of these structures is fully customised with advantages such as faster construction, ease of expansion, eco-friendliness, earthquake-resistance, factory-controlled quality, lesser maintenance, green building features, etc.

This shift is now increasingly visible, compared to earlier, steel structures in the construction of industrial and commercial buildings have been very well accepted, to the extent that most multinationals and Indian corporates have started adopting structural steel buildings – whether greenfield or expansion projects. Within the newer areas of applications for steel construction in residential and high-rise buildings, it may be concluded that we have started adopting structural steel as primary material of construction however, a lot more is still to be done in this area.

Structural steel, which is at the core of this change, was in short supply in India until not very long ago. Given the limited supply, good quality structural steel had to be imported at a cost. However, things are changing. Recently, the Indian construction market has witnessed the introduction of new and innovative structural steel and components that have changed the face of construction. Steel structures are now able to take more load with lightweight components.

As far as promoting and popularising the concept of fast paced construction in India goes, this new age material has managed to do the trick. The biggest change seen is that fabrication has now moved away from construction sites to component factories. Improved transport infrastructure in India has further facilitated the shift to off-site fabrication.

Why has development of high rise buildings not caught up in our country as much as compared to some of the international countries?
It is true that we currently do not have a significant number of ‘world-class skyscrapers’ in India. However, we do have a large number of high rises (towers between 25 and 45 storeys tall) already constructed or under construction right now. While a 40-storey structure might be a big deal for cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai or Hyderabad, for Mumbai they are now just average sized buildings.

This is because Mumbai right now, has an unbelievable 19 supertall buildings under construction. Supertalls are structures that are 300 meters or taller in height. In a nutshell, apart from Mumbai we don’t see a big boom in high rise buildings in other part of the country.

The skyscrapers built in 19th century USA had 20 floors. For modern buildings to be called skyscrapers, they need have at least 40-50 floors. Most places in India are not expensive enough to warrant that sort of demand from a piece of land; people would just go a little further away. This supports the argument that skyscrapers crop in places with high demand for floor space.

Most companies today, who can afford to build a huge commercial space for itself, generally doesn’t choose to do it vertically in the middle of a metro. Instead, they build sprawling campuses and let the community develop around them. Same is true for India. Most of the old guard and some of the new of Indian commerce have huge skyscrapers in metros to their name, but, most Indian companies understand the value of outsourcing non-essential task to cheaper areas. This reduces the need for skyscrapers.

What are your views on the current scenario of steel grades and sections provided by our steel manufacturers?
The balance of power in the world of steel appears to be on the threshold of a tectonic shift as countries which were once considered to be fringe elements in the global steel market, gradually begin to create ripples in the delicately poised industry. There is no denial of the fact that balance of power in the world of steel is shifting swiftly and if there is a country which would likely lead this transformation – it would be India. The reforms that have been brought about by the present government and its support for the steel industry have been unprecedented.

Historically, structural engineers suffered a lot regarding the types of structural steel sections which were available in the market, in last 10 years the variety of section sizes that are mostly used in American and European markets are now available in the Indian market as well. The wide flange, the hollow sections etc, you name it and are now available in Indian market. This offers a great flexibility to the structural engineers while designing the buildings. Similar was the case with the steel grade. FY250 was making it very difficult for the structural engineers to meet the design requirements regarding strength. But now, FY310 as well as foreign grade specifications are also readily available in India.

What factors are necessary for any project to be successfully executed?
To me, following are the dominant phases of any construction project:

  • Project Acquisition Stage/Inception/Project feasibility phase
  • Master Planning Stage/Product definition phase
  • Concept & schematic phase
  • Design Development phase
  • Tender phase
  • Construction Documentation/GFC phase
  • Construction phase
  • Handover phase
  • Defects Liability/maintenance phase

During the lifecycle of the project i.e. during every stage of design, execution, handover and maintenance, the following four attributes play very important role in the success or the failure of the project:

  • Timelines
  • Cost
  • Quality
  • Positive NPV / IRR / Return on Investment (ROI) / Return on Capital Employed (ROCE)

In short, the success of any construction project depends on the above-mentioned attributes meaning how well one manages these attributes or in other words if we are successful in managing these attributes during every phase of the project, then the project can be termed as a successful project.

Which best practices should be followed during the construction phase to make steel a viable choice of material?
Quality Assurance, Safety and Speed of construction will ensure that structural steel is a viable choice of material. Quality Assurance aims to confirm that the steel used is of the highest quality and that the process is executed with attention to detail. Many of the natural benefits of steel can be rendered useless if refinement and fabrication are done in a sloppy or hasty manner.

When assessing the quality of a structural steel fabrication job, the quality assurance inspector should check for the proper qualifications and performance of the welder. Structural steel fabrication must be performed by a qualified and licensed welder. Improper technique can negatively affect the overall strength and lifespan of a steel structure. A quality assurance inspector can assess the work of your welders to ensure that it meets all required specifications.

There should be a check for proper functioning of the welding and fabricating equipment. Qualified welding operators are a necessity, but, if the equipment is improperly calibrated or otherwise defective, then quality can suffer greatly. However, a quality assurance inspector can make sure your tools are in order. One needs to assess the quality of the material being used. Not all steel is created equal and it’s important to use the correct grade for your project. Different types of steel have different carbon levels which will affect things like how easy it is to weld or cut and how much tensile strength it has. A quality assurance inspector can confirm that the actual alloy composition of the steel being used matches what’s required in your specifications.

Structural steel fabrications are designed down to the millimetre, and these measurements must be spot on in order to ensure the longevity and safety of a structure. A quality assurance inspector can double check to confirm that the measurements are exactly as stated in the design specifications. When used correctly, steel is a powerful and sustainable material, but, it’s important that everything is executed according to the highest standards. Minute details must be accounted for and its best practice to check everything twice, which is exactly what a good quality assurance inspector will do for you.

Safety can be best complied by implementing the OSHA & FEMA regulations in a country like India where the aspect of safety is many times neglected to achieve the desired speed. In fact, safety is the most important aspect of the structural steel construction.

Speed is extremely important from point of view of early recovery of investment. It is to be noted that keeping in view the small to medium scale projects with structural steel turn out to be expensive because material cost as compared to RCC, and therefore, the speed of construction will help to convert this high cost to early recovery from the end customer, and therefore, the speed will help the project to recover the initial outlay quickly to offset the initial high investment in structural steel.